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A 7-week research trip in South Africa on traditional leadership and democratization.

A perspective from a 20-year-old Belgian political science student.
One democracy to rule them all?
Democracy. We all come across it in our everyday lives. Not only because of the simple fact that as Belgians we are citizens of a representative parliamentary democracy and therefore come in contact with its principles, rules and institutions on a daily basis. But we often also come across this notion because of the fact that it has a particular political and diplomatic meaning in the context of international politics. 
First and foremost, purely on an individual and intuitive level, I am fairly certain that we can all agree that democracy can be good for all of us. Let me get this out of the way immediately, I am an advocate for democracy and I believe democracy as a governance structure generates enormous benefits and liberties for everyone. However, what I would like to point out in this blog post is that we actually perceive democracy in a very specific and Western-biased way. Before I enlighten my view and opinions on the matter, I will explain what my research is about and why I choose this topic because both are very much linked.
Broadly put, the topic of my research (done for my master thesis in international politics) is the democratization process in South Africa since 1994 and the role of the traditional leadership in it. More specifically, I aim to examine the question whether this particular power institution forms either a potential threat or rather a potential reinforcement to the democratization process in South Africa. To narrow things down, I have chosen to examine the role of traditional leaders in rural development, being that it's a crucial element of the democratization process. A continuous lack of basic services and economic improvement in the rural areas of South Africa form an enormous threat to the country. Now, why did I choose South Africa? First of all, it was due to circumstances that made the idea form in my mind. Second of all, South Africa is a unique and very interesting and intriguing case and therefore worthy of attention. 
I have to admit, if you would have asked me one year ago “Okay, so tell me something about South Africa”, my answer would have been very poor and the present me would have been embarrassed. I probably would have mentioned Mandela, safari, the fact that it is considered one of the wealthier African countries and the fact that Zuid-Afrikaans is somewhat similar to Dutch. This changed when my parents’ company established a business relationship with another company in South Africa. As a result some time later the idea of a family holiday started growing and eventually we were able to find a time slot where all five of us were able to take a family trip to South Africa. The trip was amazing, to say the least. Before leaving on this trip, my father was already telling me how interesting the political situation in South Africa was and how I should pay attention to this. However, as adolescents tend to do with parental advice, I did not start to focus particularly on this yet. (Sorry, Dad.). But this changed once we were there. Due to briefly scanning South African newspapers, talking with our accommodation hosts and by simply observing the surroundings, my interest in the country grew. I bought a book (the Zuma Years by Richard Calland), I made notes while reading it and immediately I was drawn to the topic of traditional leaders. This was also the time to start thinking about the topic of my thesis. Honestly, I was not at all planning on writing it on South Africa before the holiday. But things happened and here I am, in Cape Town for a period of 7 weeks. It was not easy securing this as my topic (because of the lack of professors specialized in South Africa/traditional leaders/African politics/… available as supervisors at my home university) as well as arranging my stay in South Africa. But I pushed through and I am sure it will all be worth it in the end. (I am writing this on my first night at the lovely B&B I’m staying at. I just had a lovely dinner with the hosts and I am feeling very relieved after all the stress and content to be here). 
But now, why is South Africa such an interesting case? And why is it crucial to include traditional leaderships in the examination of the South African political situation? South Africa has had a remarkable transition to democracy with 1994 as its cornerstone. Coming from a painful and atrocious past of colonization and Apartheid, the new rainbow nation (in the words of Nelson Mandela) emerged in a relatively peaceful manner. The country is often appraised for its transition and for having one of the most liberal Constitutions in the world. Therefore, many regard South Africa as an example for democratization in Africa.
However, it’s doesn’t take long to see that this democracy and the political situation is far from perfect. The poverty and inequality in South Africa is enormous, corruption is widespread within political institutions, state officials and police forces, the past of Apartheid still plays an important and emotional role in everyday life and society, police forces often resort to inappropriate violence (one known example is the Marikana massacre in 2011, whereby police forces violently suppressed a miners’ strike by opening fire, which resulted in the deaths of some 40 people – both miners and police officers), economic inequality and frustrations often lead to protests, president Zuma gets himself into controversies a lot, the ANC is losing its credibility with its traditional voters base, crime and rape is a big problem, education knows many weaknesses, etc. The list goes on and on. Just pick up a South African newspaper (and specifically take a look at opinion articles) and you will immediately see that this remarkable democracy has it flaws. Which I, by the way, find totally normal and logical. I don’t think any democracy is perfect and is a solution to every possible societal problem. However, the situation makes South Africa a very interesting case of a wider phenomenon, namely the third wave of democratization in Africa. Examining its strengths and weaknesses can help better understand other countries in Africa that are struggling.
There are a lot of factors worth looking at when examining the South African situation. One that jumped out to me was the role of traditional leadership. This institution still has a legitimate power and role in (primarily rural) communities all over South Africa. By estimate 30% of the South African population lives under a traditional authority, therefore its influence is not to be disputed. This means that many citizens are both living under the modern state authority, as well as under a traditional authority. This obviously forms an important duality and therefore it is an element that can’t be ignored when examining the democratization of South Africa. This is the topic I have chosen for my master thesis and research. I want to take traditional leadership as the main focus and link it to the democratization process. It is indisputable that the traditional leaders are here to stay and that they will not just fade away. On the contrary, scholars talk about a resurgence of traditional leadership since 1994. So therefore it is important to look at traditional leadership as a legitimate institution in South Africa and we should ask the question how one can accommodate this institution in a democratic society.
This leads me to my main point and that is the statement that we cannot directly apply Western democracy thinking to the African continent. Adaptations and modifications are needed, as well as sensitivities to the specific circumstances and situations in the different African countries. If we don’t take these into account, our "attempt" to bring democracy to these countries will end up being an empty box. We cannot simply expect our understanding of democracy to work in these countries, moreover as our own western democracy has deficiencies as well. If we would strictly apply our Western notion of democracy, there would simply be no place for traditional leadership. In addition, we should be aware of the fact that African countries will look at democracy differently and that they will always have a different kind of democracy. And this is not a bad thing. This is a natural and good thing. If we truly understand and realize this, we can alter our way of thinking about democracy and shape our policies accordingly, resulting in a better assistance (or even just perspective) to African democracies. This is a perspective I hope to keep in mind throughout my research adventure in Cape Town. I am confident that this way of thinking will substantially improve my final work. Examining the difficult and ambiguous topic of traditional leadership and democratization will not be easy, that is for sure. But it will be challenging and eye-opening. And maybe we can all learn something from it, whether that is a better understanding of African democracy or whether that is a better understanding of our Western democracy.
Gaia Verhulst

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